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This Week's Reading

What We’re Loving: Prohibition, Bourbon, Coffee

December 14, 2012 | by

When I asked my college advisor how I could learn to write dialogue like Raymond Carver, he told me to study a real master: John O’Hara. Naturally this kept me from reading O’Hara's novels for twenty years. Then last week I picked up Butterfield 8, the 1935 story of a young woman who steals a fur coat after a one-night stand. Rarely has such a good book had such a bad ending. If not for the last ten pages, you’d have to call it a great book, with an unforgettable heroine, frank insights into sex and sexual abuse, a vivid picture of New York during Prohibition, and panning shots that prefigure William Gaddis. (Yes, great dialogue too.) —Lorin Stein

At a library sale, I found a box set of Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea trilogy in pristine condition. The spines weren’t even broken on the slim, stiff paperbacks, and I wondered whether the previous owner had even read them. But that’s all I’ve been doing the past week, and I’m ready to cast aside familial obligations, work responsibilities, holiday demands, and whatnot if they come between me and these books. —Nicole Rudick

As this internship cycle Christmas-revels itself to a close, I’ve been reflecting on a substance that consumes much of our time and is in turn consumed by us: coffee, an addiction that I’ve long cherished and an office obligation that I happily embrace. But ever since Nicole Rudick called my attention to this essay by Balzac, I’ve been conflicted. Balzac’s potent and dubiously potable formula for “anhydrous” coffee seems both heroic (as it makes “ideas quick-march into motion like battalions of a grand army”) and poisonous (as it “brutalizes these beautiful stomach linings as a wagon master abuses ponies”). But if this essay doesn’t leave coffee drinkers feeling particularly healthy, it does make us feel that we are confronting life with greater intensity than feeble green tea–types, and that we are consequently awesome. I find no fault. —Samuel Fox

I still remember the airy sense of expurgation I experienced after my fermented baptism. From the first sip of Pappy Van Winkle 20, I knew what I’d call it forevermore: “God’s Whiskey,” an appellation that has stuck with anyone who samples this magical bourbon in my presence. It is the only spirit in any category to ever receive a perfect one hundred rating from the notoriously harsh Beverage Tasting Institute. The only catch is that its minuscule production numbers, combined with the fact that every dirty hipster from here to Portland wants a piece of the pie, means that it’s a liquor unicorn almost never seen in the wild. But if you find it, your Christmas shopping is clearly finished. Getting Pappy as a gift is like receiving a “best of” collection of Southern literature. It has the smooth, easy pleasure of Twain, the intoxicating complexity of Faulkner, and the twisted spiciness of O’Connor, all in one easily portable bottle. It may be a tautology, but it’s a real reading man’s whiskey. —Graham Rogers

By chance, the other novel I've been reading—A Pin to See the Peepshow, by F. Tennyson Jesse—is another 1930s novel about a rebellious young woman whose exploits land her in the papers, nowhere near the marriage page. (Both books were inspired by faits divers.) This is great, late, pop naturalism. It sweeps you into the life and mind of an artistic shopgirl in London during and after World War I, trying to claw her way out of dreary Chiswick: from the bus ride to school on page one, I was hooked. —L. S.

2 COMMENTS

2 Comments

  1. pd | December 15, 2012 at 5:53 pm

    Hot in Topeka: Substance Abuse Counseling (4th ed), Harris & Dana.

    Also, we liked Open City but not enough to recommend (say, to Omaha or Tulsa) – but positively MILITANT re: Booker pass-over of Narcopolis. Does fiction get any better? What drugs are THEY using?!

  2. Nigel | December 15, 2012 at 11:23 pm

    The Eathsea trilogy is brilliant, and I think largely under-rated or at least overlooked. Might be time for me to revisit them! Wonderful books. Tombs of Atuan might be my favorite…

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